It was around the point where the author figure turned into Jesus of Nazareth that I started to have a problem with A Dream Before Dying. I wish to make something clear from the start: I misread the press release and was expecting a different book to what I got, so naturally I was a bit surprised to have to review a really religious book (considering that I am an atheist and all). So that’s me admitting that I dropped the ball there.
However, I try to be open to new things, but it’s pretty hard when the new things in question are bound in a book that’s not worth the paper it’s printed on. The book is a Sunday School Bible lesson in disguise, with more than just a hint of the popular British television series Life On Mars.
The premise of the book is that a young soldier serving in Vietnam as a chaplain is supposed to become one of God’s chosen Immortal Keepers, who will prepare mankind for the end times (no mention of whether or not it takes place in 2012). However, he gets catapulted into a dream before dying where he becomes Jesus and is forced to endure the lead-up to his arrest and subsequent crucifixion. He meets his regiment as disciples and other biblical people.
So, the first and most significant problem with the book: it appears to be mostly autobiographical. Obviously the author did not become part of God’s Immortal Keepers, but there seems to be a lot of common ground there. For most instances, you might as well replace the name of the main character, Vincent J. Christopher, with that of the author and it would not make a blind bit of difference. And obviously, there’s the whole “wanting to put himself in place of Jesus of Nazereth” thing.
It cries out blatant self insert of the worst possible kind. There’s a point where the issue of race comes up, and there are a couple of gratuitous mentions of the character’s race. Up to this point, I had noticed nothing about the race of either the author or the character, but to my mind once one was concerned, so was the other. My guess was later borne out.
There’s an origin story for the lad that involves a young girl being the recipient of the author’s (sorry, the main character’s) crush and her teaching him lots of scripture from the Bible. When they both grow up (she’s ten years older than he is), she goes to volunteer in Vietnam and he decides to follow her as a chaplain. To my eyes, that’s bordering on stalker territory. And besides, learning about God and preaching the word of the lord because a woman made you when you were young and impressionable does not seem like a smart life decision.
One other major annoyance that I had with this book is that the book is obviously designed to teach the reader more about the Bible and scripture. However, this comes in the form of the main character preaching the word of the Lord to people who apparently have questions but already seem to be far too clued in to be doing anything other than humouring him. A typical conversation may go something like this:
Random Soldier #1: “Say, Author Self-Insert, does the Bible not say [list some hardly known quote with chapter and verse numbers]?”
Author Self-Insert: “Why yes, yes it does, but you’re still wrong and I’ll tell you why while looking really smart and adored by the rest of you.”
I bet the other characters hated him. This is despite the character’s monologue telling us that though two other people died at the same time as him, he will be the one they really miss. Seriously, the other two don’t get a look in.
A character who the reader might hate, or at least grow to strongly dislike, is the character of Jinx. Jinx is a character who manages the impressive feat of looking like a racist caricature of a race that the author (and main character, obviously) belongs to. He speaks like a character out of Black Dynamite. I realise stereotypes have to come from somewhere (i.e, real people spoke like that) but I just couldn’t take it seriously when I read lines like this: “Hey,” shouted Jinx “somebody in here? Quit yo’ jiving, man.” and “Why you messing wit’ me?” said Jinx, “I’m telling you, t’ain’t my fault you dead. Go on from here, leave me, man. You dead – I know you dead. I tried to tell you. Everyone in da’ Nam goin’ ta hell.”
In the dream, he is cast as Judas, which according to the author is appropriate because the private didn’t take an interest in the Bible lessons and couldn’t care less about whether Heaven or Hell existed. It’s your choice as to how much you care about that sort of stuff, and not caring does not make you a sinner who will betray Jesus. I personally felt insulted, as I am a good person despite not caring in the slightest about any of this.
Skeptics could well say that I didn’t like the book because I’m an atheist, but that’s not true. While it’s true that religious dogma is unlikely to convince me, I would’ve been all right (or at least tolerated it) with the book had it not been a blatant self insert and an exercise in futility. As it was I came away treating every page like a chore and I almost gave up several times.
You could buy this for somebody, I suppose (I really wouldn’t recommend it), but make sure the person actually has taken an interest in the word of God first. Otherwise they will develop a strong dislike for being forced to read this damn thing.